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Everyday Indulgences

How to Power Nap—and Why You Should

Think it’s decadent to sleep at midday? Think again. A power nap can make you smarter, saner, and healthier.

By Dana Sullivan
Cream sofa with pillows and blanketNgoc Minh Ngo

When to Nap

The optimal time to nap is between 1 and 2:30 in the afternoon, the same stretch when cravings for a candy bar or a latte often kick in. “This period is known as the post-lunch dip,” Maas says, “but it happens whether or not you’ve eaten.” Napping earlier or later in the day is fine, too. Just try to schedule your nap so that you wake up at least three hours before your normal bedtime, so you don’t disrupt your nighttime routine.

The ideal nap length is 20 to 30 minutes. In that amount of time, you experience sleep stages 1 (sleep onset) and 2 (light sleep). During these lighter phases, you drift in and out of sleep, muscle activity slows but doesn’t stop, and brain waves are just starting to decelerate. You can awaken fairly quickly from stage 1 or 2 sleep.

If you let yourself nap longer than 30 minutes, you’re likely to fall into slow-wave sleep—stages 3 and 4—and throw off your normal nighttime sleep schedule. During these stages, considered restorative or deep sleep, brain waves are very slow, and there’s neither eye movement nor muscle activity. “Your brain will register this as good sleep,” says Gerard Lombardo, M.D., director of the New York Methodist Hospital Sleep Disorder Center and author of Sleep to Save Your Life ($15, “And you will have much less of a need to sleep at night.”

Learning to Nap

Just as you can learn to meditate or use deep-breathing techniques for relaxation, you can train yourself to nap. “Napping is just like any other skill—the more you practice, the better you get,” says William Anthony, Ph.D., executive director of the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and vice-president of the Napping Company, an advocacy organization that conducts workshops on the benefits of napping.

For most of us, going to sleep each night is automatic; napping is not. For those who have trouble napping, preparation is key. “The approach to the nap is as important as the nap itself,” Lombardo says. First, make sure you’re in a relaxing environment—turn down the lights, put in earplugs, turn off the ringer on your phone. Next, put yourself in the right frame of mind. “You have to feel you deserve that nap,” Lombardo says. Remind yourself that a nap is as restorative as meditation. The 20 minutes or so you spend in light sleep will bring your heart rate down, reduce stress, and calm your mind.

If you’re feeling wired or can’t stop your mind from racing, practice relaxation techniques. Try visualizing a peaceful place—your favorite beach, say, or a hammock—and concentrate on that place until you feel your mind wind down. Or focus on relaxing your muscles. Working your way from your toes to the top of your head, focus on making sure each body part is perfectly at ease.

If you’re concerned about oversleeping, set an alarm. “I set my cell-phone alarm for 20 minutes so I can fall asleep very quickly and not worry that I’ll sleep too long,” says Stephanie Sellars, 29, a singer and actress in New York City. After you become a regular napper, your body will adjust and you probably won’t need an alarm to wake up.

If you think you don’t have enough time, consider that “a nap as short as 10 minutes can significantly improve alertness,” says Maurice M. Ohayon, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Sleep Epidemiology Research Center at Stanford University.

While Mednick was in graduate school, she napped nearly every day to get through frequent late nights. Her ritual was simple. Every afternoon at about 2 p.m., she’d grab a blanket from her desk drawer and lie down on a couch in a dark room near her lab. Within a few weeks, she was able to fall asleep in a couple of minutes and wake up exactly one hour later, without an alarm. She’s still a committed napper. “After a nap,” she says, “I feel like I have a second day.”

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